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Authors: Philip Roth

My Life as a Man

BOOK: My Life as a Man
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Philip Roth

My Life As A Man




To Aaron Asher and Jason Epstein

Note to the Reader

The two stories in part I,

Useful Fictions,

and part

the autobiographical narrative

True Story,

are drawn from

the writings of Peter Tarnopol.







I could be his Muse, if only he

d let me.

Maureen Johnson Tarnopol, from her diary



Useful Fictions





Salad Days


First, foremost, the puppyish, protected upbringing above his father

s shoe store in Camden. Seventeen years the adored competitor of that striving, hot-headed shoedog (that

s all, he liked to say, a lowly shoedog, but just you wait and see), a man who gave him Dale Carnegie to read so as to temper the boy

s arrogance, and his own example to inspire and strengthen it.

Keep up that cockiness with people, Natie, and you

ll wind up a hermit, a hated person, the enemy of the world
Meanwhile, downstairs in his store, Polonius displayed no
but contempt for any employee whose ambition was less fierce than his own. Mr. Z.—as he was called in the store, and at home by his
son when the youngster was feeling his oats—Mr. Z. expected,
that by the end of the workday his salesmen and his stock boy should each have as stupendous a headache as he did. That the salesmen, upon quitting, invariably announced that they hated his guts, always came to him as a surprise: he expected a young fellow to be grateful to a boss who
goaded him to increase his commissions. He couldn

t understand why anyone would want less when he could have more, simply, as Mr. Z. put it,

by pushing a little.

And if they wouldn

t push, he would do it for them:


t worry,

he admitted proudly,


m not proud,

meaning by
that apparently
that he had easy access to his wrath when confronted with another

s imperfection.

And that went for his own flesh and blood as well as the hired help. For example, there was the time (and the son would never forget it—in part it may even account for what goaded him to be

a writer

), there was the time the father caught a glimpse of his

s signature across the face of a booklet the child had prepared for school, and nearly blew their house down. The nine-year-old had been feeling self-important and the signature showed it. And the father knew it.

This is the way they teach you to sign your name, Natie? This is supposed to be the signature that somebody on the other end is supposed to read and have respect for? Who the hell can read something that looks like a train wreck! Goddam it, boy,
this is your name.
Sign it

The self-important child of the self-important shoedog bawled in his room for hours afterward, all the while strangling his pillow with his bare hands until it was dead. Nonetheless, when he emerged in his pajamas at bedtime, he was holding by its topmost corners a sheet of white paper with the letters of his name, round and legible, engraved in black ink at
center. He handed it over to the tyrant:


and in the next instant was lifted aloft into the heaven of his father

s bristly evening stubble.

Ah, now

a signature!

something you can hold your head up about!

m going to tack up over the counter in the store!

And he did just that, and then led the customers (most of whom were Negroes) all the way around behind the register, where they could get a really close look at the little boy

s signature.

What do you think of

he would ask, as though the name were in fact appended to the Emancipation Proclamation.

And so it went with this bewildering dynamo of a protector. Once when they were out fishing at the seashore, and Nathan

s Uncle Philly had seen fit to give his nephew a good shake for being careless with his hook, the shoedog had threatened to throw Philly over the side of the boat and into the bay for laying
a hand on the child.

The only one who touches him is me, Philly!

Yeah, that

ll be the day

Philly mumbled.

Touch him again, Philly,

his father said savagely,

and you

ll be talking to the bluefish, I promise you! You

ll be talking to

But then back at the rooming house where the Zuckermans were spending their two-week vacation, Nathan, for the first and only time in his life, was thrashed with a belt for nearly taking his uncle

s eye out while clowning around with that goddam hook. He was astonished that his father

s face, like his own, should be wet with tears when the three-stroke beating was over, and then—more astonishing—he found himself crushed in the man

s embrace.

Nathan, a person

you know what it would be like for a grown man to have to go through life without

No, he didn

t; any more than he knew what it would be like to be a small boy without a father, or wanted to know, for all that his ass felt on fire.

Twice his father had gone bankrupt in the years between the wars: Mr. Z.

s men

s wear in the late twenties, Mr. Z.

s kiddies

wear in the early thirties; and yet never had a child of Z.

s gone without three nourishing meals a day, or without prompt medical attention, or decent clothes, or a clean bed, or a few pennies


in his pocket. Businesses crumbled, but never the household, because never the head of the house. During those bleak years of scarcity and hardship,
Nathan hadn

t the faintest idea that his family was trembling on the brink of anything but perfect contentment, so convincing was the confidence of that volcanic father.

And the faith of the mo
certainly didn

t act as though she was married to a businessman who

d been bankrupt and broke two times over. Why, the husband had only to sing a few bars of

The Donkey Serenade

while shaving in the bathroom, for the wife to announce to the children at the breakfast table,

And I thought it was the radio. For a moment I actually thought it was Allan Jones.

If he whis
tled while washing the car, she
praised him over
gifted canaries who whistled popular songs (popular maybe, said Mr. Z., among other canaries) on WEAF Sunday mornings; dancing her across the kitchen linoleum (the waltz spirit oftentimes seized him after dinner) he was

another Fred Astaire

; joking for the children at the dinner table he was, at least to her way of thinking, funnier than anyone on

Can You Top This

—certainly funnier
that Senator Ford. And when he parked the Studebaker—it never failed—she would look out at the distance between the wheels and
curbstone, and announce—it never failed

as though he had set a sputtering airliner down into a cornfield. Needless to say, never to criticize where you could praise was a principle of hers; as it happened, with Mr. Z. for a husband, she couldn

t have gotten away with anything else had she tried.

Then the just deserts. About
time Sherman, their older son, was coming out of
navy and young Nathan was entering high school, business suddenly began to boom in the Camden store, and by 1949, the year Zuckerman entered college, a brand new

Mr. Z.

shoe store had opened out at the two-million-dollar Country Club Hills Shopping Mall. And then at last the one-family house: ranch style, with a flagstone fireplace, on a one-acre lot—the family dream come true just as
family was falling apart.


s mother, happy as a birthday child, telephoned Nathan at college the day the deed was signed to ask what

color scheme

he wanted for his room.


Zuckerman answered,

and white. And a canopy over my bed and a skirt for my vanity table.
, what is this

your room


But—but why did Daddy even buy the house, if not for you to have a real boy

s room, a room of your own for you and all your things? This is something you

ve wanted all your life.

Gee whiz, could I have pine paneling,

Darling, that

s what I

m telling you—you can have

And a college pennant over my bed? And a picture on my dresser of my mom and my girl?

Nathan, why are you making fun of me like this? I was so looking forward to this day, and all you have for me when I call with such wonderful news is—sarcasm. College sarcasm!

Mother, I

m only trying very gently to break it to you—you just cannot delude yourself into thinking there is something called


s room

in your new house. What I wanted at the age of ten for all

my things,

I don

t necessarily want any longer.

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